F1 1998

Japanese GP 1998: Losing the battle, if not the war

1998 was the first season that I started watching Formula One, and by the end of the season it well and truly had its hooks in me. Re-watching Schumacher and Hakkinen line up on the front row in the last race of the season gave me flashbacks to watching a replay of the race in 1998 after taking painstaking efforts to avoid hearing the result. I knew Schumacher had to win, or Hakkinen had to finish second or higher to claim the championship…. then my brother walked into the room.

“Oh you’re watching F1?”

“Shhhhh, please. I don’t want to know what happens, I haven’t seen it.”

“Oh ok,” my brother said, cracking a cheesy grin, “All I’ll say is, Schumacher stalls on the grid and has to start the race from the back.” I had to bite my lip hold back my annoyance. “But that’s all I’ll say, I don’t want to spoil it for you.”

Geez, thanks mate.

So the pre-race tension about whether Hakkinen would simply follow Schumacher around happy to finish in second place, or challenge for the lead, was instantly unwound and now with an all Mclaren front row it looked like Mika would be doing it easy.

After the first lap Coulthard had fallen to fourth position and Schumacher had made his way back up to P12, an impressive effort. At this stage, with Irvine following Hakkinen, Michael’s only hope was to get up to third place - a tough ask with the considerable speed of the midfielders like Williams, Jordan and Benneton to contend with - and hope that Mika either broke down or got "tangled up" with the sister Ferrari.

Frentzen continued to impress in the Williams, holding P3 in the early phase of the race and dampening the threat from Coulthard. Further back it was the old foes Schumacher and Hill battling it out with Villienueve ahead and Spare Schumahcer behind the lot of them. With seemingly no other option to clear the pack, pulling in to the pits was looking like a good idea for Michael before Hill pulled in to take service, Spare Schumacher’s engine exploded and Michael found a way past Jacques to claim P5.

Schumacher then started pushing his car to the limits, smashing through the infamous Senna/Prost chicane like a man possessed hoping that he could chase down Coulthard through the next round of pitstops. Post race he reported that he locked up his tyres so badly that the vibrations meant he couldn’t see his rears in the mirrors, and perhaps this contributed to his downfall (as it has a number of times this year) or perhaps he picked up some debris from when the two Japanese drivers, Takagi and Tuero collided and took each other - at their home race no less!

Either way, despite the pleas from the commentators that “anything could still happen”, the sight of Schumacher pulling over and hoping out of his car meant that Hakkinen would be sleeping with the championship trophy under his bed that night.

After finally dispatching with Frentzen, Coulthard set off after Eddie Irvine, but the finish line beat him to it. It couldn’t come fast enough for Heinz-Harald though who was pipped by Hill for P4 in the final corners, who ended up finishing only one point behind reigning-champion Villienueve in the drivers'  tally while the cameras were following the triumphant Mclaren drivers on their parade lap. 

Schumacher lamented that they hadn’t lost the title that day, but earlier in the season and was proud of the efforts of the team but he simply was not supposed to be champion that year. 

In the official post-race presser Hakkinen was asked if he felt an enormous release of pressure when Schumacher stalled and had to start from the rear of the grid, effectively securing the championship before the race had even started.

“Yes, I did,” he solemnly answered before cracking into a broad smile. His responses might have the ruthlessly efficiency that countryman Kimi Raikkonen has come to be known for, but Mika certainly set the benchmark of minimal verbiage for quite a few years.

So that’s it - I’ve recapped the entire season! I know everyone has their favourite years, but so much of how feel I still feel about the sport was formulated watching this season; my understand of what is fair racing, what it means to truly earn the championship, and how personal drama informs the excitement on track. 

It was all there.

I toyed with turning this into a podcast series with interviews, race clips, etc. Perhaps one day… but I wouldn’t hold my breath, loyal reader. Thanks for following along for all sixteen race recaps (if, indeed you did!) and hope you’ll join me on whatever the next series will be!

Italian GP 1998: All squared away

I was thinking of combining this race with the next one and doing a double-header recap, but considering the result I’m really glad I didn’t do that because in the context of the 1998 season… the Italian Grand Prix might be the most influential race so far. 

Not the most controversial, or memorable, but influential.

Right from the starting line, where both Schumacher AND Villeneuve squeezed ahead of the Mclarens to fill out the front row, you knew the atmosphere on the track would have been electric. 

When the five lights went out both Mclarens bit into the tarmac and tore past Schumacher like he was standing still to the dismay of Tifosi and the delight of Ron Dennis (and probably others). By lap 3, Mika and DC had built a four second gap over Schumacher in P3 and it was starting to look like finishing on the podium would be the best the German could achieve.

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Ahead of him, a very different story was playing out. 

Seemingly due to their qualifying position, Mclaren had split strategies across the Mclarens and, with a lighter fuel load, Hakkinen was now slowing down his lighter, faster teammate and hurting his chances in the race. What happened next was almost unthinkable, but Hakkinen pulled over and let Coulthard through. 

It was hard not to be reminded of Coulthard yielding to Hakkinen in Australia as part of their “gentlemans’ agreement”, but with three races to go Mclaren had the chance to wrap up the constructors’ championship if they could score nine points more than Ferrari for the race. It would be their first since partnering with Mercedes, it would justify four years of hard work and development between the two camps and (although they didn’t know it at the time) cement a working partnership that lasted in total almost twenty years that only ended last year when they switched back to Honda's power units.

Just as the marshals were extinguishing the flaming chassis of Shinji Nakano’s stricken Minardi, a very frustrated and fed-up Scotsman was retiring his car by the side of track with a “grenaded” engine.

If that wasn’t enough encouragement for the Italian fans to stand up and cheer, the sight of Hakkinen running wide and Michael Schumacher dancing past him to take the lead had them jumping wildly into the air and cheering as he passed under the old embankment and along the grandstands on the back straight and around the parabolica to start his first lap as leader of the race. 

Finally it looked like Schumacher would take the victory that he felt he deserved in Spa, and this time DC wasn’t around the stuff it all up for him. From here the race was coming down to does Mika have a mechanical issue, and if not when will the front runners pit.

Behind them running in 7th, 8th and 9th were Fisichella, Frentzen and Hill, the later dueling and dicing not only for track position but supremacy heading in to 1999. This came after the announcement that Spare Schumacher and Frentzen would be swapping seats meaning the Jordan team would become the Hill-Frentzen show (a pairing that I remember very fondly and a team that ended up becoming my “second favourite” after Mclaren for the years to follow).

When Fisichella and Frentzen both had stops to forget, Damon cruised in to take service and emerged ahead of both of them on his way to claiming sixth place. 

Most pit stops that day saw the cars throw up huge, black clouds of brake dust, and it’s tempting to draw a metaphorical parallel with Schumacher’s situation as he pitted with everything to lose. In reality the Ferrari engineers pulled off a trademark display of precision and put the pressure on Hakkinen to chase down their main man in clear air - however needing to make up almost eight full seconds it was always going to be a tall ask.

My mind started to wonder off during the mid-race lull, and I noticed strange little details in the coverage like how many times they used Soundgarden were used when throwing to commercials, or how you could hear the sound of the helicopter when they cut to the overhead shot - as if they were worried that the audience wouldn’t understand how a camera was floating magically in the sky.

Then a few things grabbed my attention. The first, Villenueve flying off the track at one of the Lesmos, and secondly a report that Johnny Herbert had to retire his car after an engineer dropped a spanner into the cockpit that rattled around throughout the race and eventually lodged itself under his pedals. I’m sure F1 is full of stories like this, and as inconsequential as it might seem, I really get a kick out of these kind of them.

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After catching Schumacher at a slow and steady rate, Hakkinen’s car went in to a violent spin and sent his car through a corner backwards and destined for the barriers. Without missing a beat Hakkinen checked his mirrors and steered his car away from the barriers and back toward the road WHILE SLIDING BACKWARDS for a few hundred metres. As someone who can’t even reverse a trailer into a driveway, I was suitably impressed.

At that stage Hakkinen was 30 seconds ahead of third place man Eddie Irvine in the second Ferrari, and he managed to hang on to P2 momentarily, but Irvine quickly caught and passed him right and made sure to do it right in front of the Tifosi at the entry to the Ascari chicane. 

Mika wasn’t struggling for top speed, but looked vulnerable under breaking and lost a few more places before eventually finishing fourth after being overtaken by Spare Schumacher in the Jordan for the final podium position.

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This brought the drivers’ championship to a very interesting position in that M. Schumacher and M. Hakkinen left Monza with the exact same number of points with only two races remaining. Regardless of whether you know the result of the championship this year or not, that’s mental.

Having won the race, it was easy for Schumacher to laugh about his terrible start by joking, “It looked like I wanted to go for a walk rather than a race,” but it was clear that whichever driver was at the top of their game would claim the title this year, and it was going to go down to the wire.

One other thing was for sure, momentum was now on Michael’s side. Bring on Luxembourg!

Hungarian GP 1998: The last of the late breakers

So I've really enjoyed revisiting the 1998 season, and I know the batshit crazy Belgian Grand Prix is up next, so to some degree I thought this race would just be something to tolerate, to plough through so that I can get to the "good one" but it turned out I was wrong! And what's more, the best performance of the race came from one of the drivers I admire the least. 

Coulthard was asked on the grid whether his championship push was over and if he was mostly playing "rear gunner" for Hakkinen, to which he laughingly admitted he was. Locking out the front row it was looking like a repeat of so many races we've seen already from this season at the usually lacklustre Hungaroring. 

Early on there was some talk that Eddie Irvine might have been one-stopping in the race, with the idea of holding up the Mclaren drivers after their first pitstop and pushing them back to within striking range of Michael Schumacher, although this theory proved futile when Irvine not only pitted early, but was the first of the front runners to take service. It was also thought that a discussion between Ron Dennis and the Jordan pitwall was to ensure Ralph Schumacher wasn't going to be used as a pawn in the battle between his brother and Mika, but it wouldn't have been the first time someone in the F1 media circle floated a paranoid theory.

Strangely, Damon Hill predicted that Ferrari may have the edge at this race considering the weather conditions and their superior tyre performance. Not only this but Hungary had always treated Damon very well, the former world champion having finished on the podium at every previous visit (and only missing out this time because of that pesky Candian, you know the one).

Backmarkers were playing a huge part in keeping the front runners close, DC would bravely battle through as if his face was painted blue and white, meanwhile Schumacher would just muscle his way through behind him without losing any time. Despite his best efforts, Schumacher couldn't find a way past DC and with 60 laps to go inspiration struck at Scuderia.

Ferrari strategist Ross Brawn, who would go on to win the constructors' championship with a car of his namesake, pulled Schumacher in for an early second stop and found some clear air for primary car and switched Michael to a three stop strategy. Mclaren were completely perplexed about what was happening and stopped both of their cars shortly after as a precautionary measure, but Schumacher was able to put in some blistering laps on a lighter fuel load and with fresh tyres to easily take the lead and stop again without too much trouble.

In Mclaren-land, Mika suddenly started losing speed and the fact that Coulthard was given strict orders to support his wingman at all costs became apparent when he too slowed down. Realising that Schumacher was romping toward a likely race win, Mika pulled over and unleashed DC to no avail. In the end, Coulthard was fortunate to hang on to 2nd place, most likely the best result he was going to get that day, while Mika struggled to keep his car in the points eventually hanging on to 6th place.

Not only did Ralph Schumacher unlap himself against Hakkinen in the end, but big brother Michael lapped the Mclaren in the dying moments of the race to add insult to injury. 

So that was the podium, in the end, was not unlike the 1997 race with Schumacher, Coulthard and Villenueve receiving trophies from a chicken... so that's fun.

Post-race Schumacher admitted that it was tough to pull off the strategy and it required 60 laps of qualifying pace. Perhaps I found it so exciting because it illustrated the advantages of giving drivers the freedom to push like crazy and drive the wheels off their car to make something magical happen in the race - it goes without saying that we don't see that in the modern era.

We leave Hungary with only 7 points separating championship leaders Hakkinen and Schumacher. "You've seen how the scene can change in Formula One," says Murray Walker, prophetically, "it's changed today and could change again in two week's time in Belgium."

I can't wait.

Canadian GP 1998: Pack 'er up, boys

Well, I picked a heck of a race to finally work out a live stream option (apologies for dragging my feet on that front, should be sorted for future viewing sessions). As the cars lined up in Montreal yet another front row lockout for Mclaren greeted us, yet the start did not follow the script, neither where the Channel 9 commentators when they pointed out to us that the Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve is on an island surround by water. (As opposed to........)

Not only was Michael Schumacher able to split the Mclarens off the line, but a huge shunt between Jarno Trulli, Alexander Wurz and Jean Alesi sees the race called to a stop and a restart is ordered. Drivers frantically scurry back to the pits to jump in the spare car (far out, remember spare cars?) which seems so illogical and unnecessary now. Apart from the cost of shipping an extra car around the world to every race, it takes up valuable garage space and imagine if you are Mark Webber having to jump in a car set up for Sebastian Vettel? My knees hurt just thinking about it.

Anyway, after the unplanned tea-break we got back to racing and with Mika regained his P2 position for the restart, but worst of all for Schumacher he fell behind Fisichella's Benetton in third place. I hope Mika felt conflicted about it, and it seems the karma police left a few gremlins in his engine because he retired from the race soon after. Issues elsewhere on the track prompted a safety car (I hope you're picking up on the theme of today's race) but nothing serious enough to prompt another restart - man, if they did that I couldn't even.  Just as fortune favours the brave so too does attacking the driver in front of you at the earliest possible opportunity with Schumacher apparently waking Fisichella from a deep and comfortable slumber on the resumption of the race.

Through the early stints it was game-on between Schumacher and Coulthard, both hopeful of a win in Canada to revive their championship push. Elsewhere on the track Villeneuve and Frentzen were squabbling for position, and with Williams sitting so low in the constructors' championship it was hoped that they'd take a few swings at other. Without really being able to identify exactly why, I've always had a fondness for Heinz-Harald Frentzen; he had a perpetuating underdog aura that drew me in, and certainly a charisma that Jacques simply never possessed. 

Then Mclaren's gremlins jumped up and bit Coulthard right on the proverbials when a throttle linkage failure saw him fall from the lead at a rate of knots, the Scot driving his car head first into the garage in the universal signal for "pack 'er up, boys." I'm far from an expert when it comes to Formula One cars, but having your throttle linked to the car does seem to be rather an important element. When interviewed Coulthard explained that he was gutted with the retirement after having taken pole position for the race and then, although being heavily pressured by Schumacher, was primed for a comfortable victory on a one-stop strategy as opposed to Michael's two-stops. 

Back on track, an off-track excursion for Pedro Diniz saw him drag large clumps of astroturf from off-track on to the track... and that's as viable an excuse as any for another safety car. This time Schumacher uses the SC for cover and pulls into his garage to take service, emerging right into the path of Frentzen and worrying him off the road. It's unclear whether Schumacher actually pushed him off the road or simply took all of the racing line and banished him onto the grass, but either way Frentzen was out of the race and a furious Frank Williams stormed off the stewards to lodge a complaint. Shortly after the german driver was slapped with a 10 sec stop-and-go penalty and post-race the regulations were reviewed leading to the pitlane exit lines with which Lewis Hamilton has recently become acquainted.

At the end of the safety car period, Fisichella lead the pack but came under immense pressure from Villeneuve coming into turn 1. Without a genuine hope of victory in front of his home crowd this was as close as Jacques would come to leading the race that day, and with a rush of blood he gave it full beans on the outside of the first corner, leaving him with far too much speed and eventually running across the turf at the second corner and surrendering several places. 

Fisichella momentarily inherited the lead from Schumacher as he pitstops played themselves out, but in a prolonged and surely exhausting sprint to the finish Schumacher was able to complete both his ten second penalty and a second pit stop with a few seconds in his pocket to take a reasonably comfortable victory. Without spoiling any future races this may not be his last win this season.

On the topic of spoilers, it's difficult to avoid them completely. Any engaged F1 fan these days is bombarded with "On this day in 1998..." or "20 years ago at the Canadian GP...", and while I realise I'm doing exactly that by producing these little race recaps, I nonetheless find myself drawn into the racing just as much as with live events. I generally despise watching current races the following day, especially when I know the result, but something about watching these old races flicks a switch in my brain that activates a reality distortion field and I am right back there in 1998, presumably in my fluro pants and with that weird, Swingers-esque hairstyle I was trying to pull off. 

Next race... ahh, scenic Magny-Cour in France, and don't forget that I'll tweet out a link if you want to stream the race with me.

^ Rod

Monaco GP 1998: From bad to Wurz

In reviewing the '98 season there were always going to be a few tentpole races; Spa, Monaco, even Hungary. I've tried to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but a race diary from Mika Hakkinen on the official Mclaren blog at this years' Monaco Grand Prix got a lot of traction and was difficult to avoid. Reading it now and watching the 1998 race it's easy to see why Mika was so keen to return to that weekend, where he took pole and won without incident when those around him were losing their heads.

It's known as the jewel in F1's crown and the race every driver wants to win. As usual the pitlane was full of celebrities, and none other than Liz Hurley appeared on the broadcast to declare her affections for, "the Irish guy". The track is renown for being unforgiving, and to quote a Hakkinen-ism, it looked just as "narrow, tight, sinuous, tortuous, bumpy, yumpy" that day as it ever has.

Despite the boffins predicting that only half to field would finish the actual start of the race was uneventful, and again it seemed that Coulthard's starting prowess had abandoned him. Giancarlo Fisichella showed that his qualifying pace was genuine, bravely defending against the charging Schumacher amidst rumours that the Ferrari's were heavy with fuel allowing them to go long on race strategy and pull in for a splash and dash when required. 

On lap 18 Coulthard suffered a spontenous and catastrophic engine failure that saw him drop out of the race. Big points were on offer, and if Schumacher was going to reign in the Mclarens he needed the blessing of the Monegasque Yacht-Gods that day. 

Eddie "ladies man" Irvine tank slapped Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the hairpin, shoving the German into the barriers. (Eww, what a bully!) The mean streets of Monaco are truly the wild west of F1, and today overtaking at the hairpin is like walking a tightrope. After an early pitstop Schumacher found himself behind the Benetton of Alexander Wurz and, needing to overtake to salvage his chances of a podium, he threw his car up the inside only to lose the inside line on the following corner as Wurz made a contest of things.

Switching back on the approach to Portier Schumacher demanded the inside line and commanded the racing line in what would have been the overtake of the season had it not resulted in damage to his rear suspension. Confusion reigned as Michael pulled into the pits, and eventually he rejoined the track... albeit three laps behind the leaders.

Wurz wasn't quite out of the woods, and a mysterious excursion through the tunnel saw him emerge without either of his front wheels. A replay from his on-board camera showed him bursting into the light only to crash into the barriers, slide straight across the harbour chicane and into the wall on the other side. I don't think I'm exceeding my authority as a humble observer to say that Wurz's efforts to steer through the chicane without his front wheels redefines the word futile.

With the final phase approaching and most of the field looking to consolidate their position, the commentary turns to another pressing issue in the sport during that era... the Tyre War. At its best a tyre war introduces unpredictability and pushes innovation, at worst it unfairly disadvantage genuinely credible outfits with no course for remedy. I wouldn't mind seeing it return to the sport, however the current approach to tyre wear would thus need to be reconsidered, as two companies producing degrading tyres seems too difficult to regulate, and too easy to circumvent.

In P5 and with the finish line in sight, light plumes of smoke emerging from Jean Alesi's car was probably the very last thing he wanted to see. A few laps later he retired his car (on the racing line, for what it's worth) and for a moment he looked poised to leap into the harbour. With Alesi out of the race the final world championship point was handed to none other than Pedro Diniz, the son of a Brazilian Supermarket owner who grew up dreaming of showbiz.

As the chequered flag flew wildly through the air, so to did Mika's hands with a fever that only a Monaco winner can summon. Following him home was Fisichella who capped off a brilliant weekend and Ferrari's Eddie Irvine having bullied his way to a podium that he'll never forget, and the first of three trips to those auspicious stairs in four years.

After the race, Mika writes in his recap, he thought to himself, "Mika, you're won the Monaco Grand Prix. Not every driver can do that. So you're good enough to win the World Championship. You are. You really are. Now go and win it, Goddammit!"

The next step on Mika's road to glory is the Canadian Grand Prix where I will, presumably, take far less screenshots...